Israel’s storyteller - Tom Segev's revealing biography of David Ben-Gurion

Tom Segev's newest book, A State at Any Cost, is a biography of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and has sparked quite a bit of controversy in Israel.

Tom Segev in the library of his Jerusalem home: Ben-Gurion figures in everything I write, in everything I have to say about Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tom Segev in the library of his Jerusalem home: Ben-Gurion figures in everything I write, in everything I have to say about Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tom Segev is one of Israel’s most prolific and controversial historians. His newest book, A State at Any Cost, is a biography of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and has sparked quite a bit of controversy in Israel. Through careful assessment of documents from the State and other archives, the book discloses previously unknown and surprising facts. For example, Segev reveals for the first time that in 1947 Ben-Gurion feared that the nascent Jewish army would not be able to defeat the Arab states poised to attack, and tried to get the British to extend their mandate for another five or 10 years, an attempt that ultimately failed.
Segev, 75, is one of the “new historians” who challenge some of the founding myths of the Jewish state. Unlike many of them who seem to target their critique and then create arguments to justify them, he is a meticulous historian who sticks to the facts and lets readers draw their own conclusions.
The book, published in Hebrew and German in 2018 and in English in 2019, shows us a personal, not always flattering, fact-based portrait of Israel’s founding leader, who was – until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed him – the country’s longest-serving leader. Segev arrives for our wide-ranging interview in Jerusalem after having just learned that the book will be translated into Chinese. For many years, he worked as a journalist for the Hebrew daily Haaretz before becoming a historian. Segev speaks, as he writes, in a way that makes history come alive. 
How has your latest book been received?
It’s controversial on both the Right and the Left, which I wasn’t aware of at the beginning. It got an endless number of reviews, and some of them attack me for being too leftist, and some of them attack me for being too rightist, and all of them are right! The reviewers want to say something about Israel, about Zionism, according to their view. So many people read into the book their own Ben-Gurion, or resent that they don’t find enough of their Ben-Gurion.
It’s still doing really well. It’s coming out in paperback soon, and as I said in Chinese. I have one book, The Seventh Million, in 14 languages, including Japanese, and it is so beautiful, just to look at it, the production is amazing.
People always ask me why do we need another Ben-Gurion biography and the very simple answer is that we have much, much, more material than the last serious biographer Ben-Gurion had, Shabtai Tevet, which was 40 years ago. In the meantime we have much more from his diary. We have cabinet papers and they are really important because the early cabinet meetings were held under the assumption that nobody would ever know what was said.
Today the prime minister hardly finishes a sentence before he sends an SMS to his spokesman, and it’s on the radio while the meeting is still going on. But then, they were really honest, they were discussing issues. During cabinet meetings, Ben-Gurion is really interested in the principal problem that comes out. For example, if they discuss a law that would exempt kibbutzim from paying taxes, he doesn’t start by talking about taxes. He talks about kibbutzim, and what they mean, and that’s how he talks about most issues. 
We also have letters and diaries from other people and much more material that used to be classified, and has now been declassified, so it makes it possible to create a tri-dimensional figure of the man. For a while he was standing on a high pedestal carved of stone, or he was made of steel. He was just an icon. And I think it is easier today to get close to the real Ben-Gurion, particularly to his mind. How does he think? What makes him do what he does?
I found a man who is full of contradictions, inner conflicts, a tendency to move from deep depression to uncontrollable euphoria, and the interesting thing is that he knows it. He talks about it, and he says, “If anybody ever reads my diary, they will think it was written by two different people,” which shows a high degree of self-awareness. You can go back to the day on which he almost wishes to die. So what happened? It’s never justified. So you had a big fight with Chaim Weizmann – big deal. Also the other way – what makes you so happy? What happened? You saw how they built the port of Tel Aviv? Why is this the height of happiness? These are things that give you a picture of the man.
Can a normal person be a great leader? There’s no question he was a great leader. Weren’t most great leaders manic-depressive?
I don’t go for psychological diagnoses. But if Ben-Gurion himself describes his mood, then I will use his description of his mood. But I will be very careful not to use professional psychological language because I know nothing about it. Everybody asks me about the psychology of Ben-Gurion. I don’t know. I know what he wrote and I don’t want to brand it in psychological language.
How did you get interested in the topic? Why Ben-Gurion?
I have written six books before this one and Ben-Gurion figures in everything I write, in everything I have to say about Israel, and he is so central even today. He has never been as popular as he is today. While I was writing this book, three other biographies came out, and one more immediately after mine – five original Ben-Gurion biographies written in Israel in five years. There was also the documentary film which I think is wonderful, and lots of people went to see it. Imagine people who get a babysitter, go out, look for parking and buy a ticket for an interview with a politician! But what a politician! I think there is a great longing for statesmanship with vision, and the longer Netanyahu stays in office, the more popular Ben-Gurion becomes. There are lots of reasons why people support Netanyahu, but I don’t know anybody who assigns integrity, vision and statesmanship, especially integrity, to Netanyahu. Ben-Gurion was a man of integrity – what you see, you get.
Did you ever meet him? 
Yes, I met him in April of 1968, just a month before the 20th anniversary of Israel’s independence. We were three students who went to do an interview with him. He was no longer in office. It was a Friday, and I know now (but I didn’t know then) that at the beginning of the same week, he recorded the interviews for the film. This was almost the first thing I did as a journalist, and it’s not always good to begin a career with a peak. 
I have met lots of famous people, lots of prominent world leaders, and nothing came close to the conversation with Ben-Gurion. It was a feeling of facing Jewish history in person. We went to his “Tzrif” in Sde Boker, and there was a security guard who said he would let us in only if we give him our word that we would leave in 20 minutes because he said Ben-Gurion is an old man and doesn’t have a sense of time.
Ben-Gurion had this habit of writing down the names of the people who he talked to, and he also wanted the questions in advance so he could talk freely about whatever he wants. He asked each of us where our family came from. We asked him, “We would like your opinion of the future of the occupied territories, he said, “I will tell you, but what do you think?” One of us – not him (pointing to the home of Avraham Kushnir) and not me – was stupid enough to start telling him. He realized that we are too young to know anything about the history of Zionism. He got up from his desk, he climbs up a ladder to his bookshelf, takes out a book about the history of Petah Tikva, and reads to us from the book.
By now, about 21 minutes were gone, and we don’t have a single word to quote from Ben-Gurion. While he is standing on the ladder, the book in his hand, reading about Petah Tikva, he says, as if it is part of the text, “I know that my guy told you to go away after 20 minutes, but you can stay as long as you want.” We ended up there for three hours, and it was really fascinating.
At one point, he became really personal and talked about Paula (his wife), who had just died. I will never forget how he almost whispered, “I wanted another child, but Paula didn’t.” We thought, “Why are you telling us this? You are taking us into the most intimate chambers of your life.” 
He talked about his childhood and he said that at the age of three, he already knew that he was a Zionist. I thought, “maybe he is not really fully connected with reality anymore,” but when I did work on the book many years later, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t that absurd. Maybe not three, but at age 13 he had already founded a Zionist club for the advancement of the Hebrew language. He and his friends began to speak Hebrew to each other. So from a very early age, Zionism was the essence of his personality and the core of his identity. He remained faithful to a [Theodor] Herzl-type Zionism of a Jewish state on as much land as possible, with as many Jews as possible, and as few Arabs as possible. This is something he was able to achieve, but the price was very high. For him, no price was too high. He wanted a state at any cost. 
When you asked him about the West Bank and Palestinians, what did he say?
This was several months after the Six Day War and he already had a set answer to that question. I now know how his answer took shape in consultation with Moshe Dayan. The answer was that for peace, he will return the territories. We were so inexperienced and I always remember this as a failure because we did not ask him, “Does that include Jerusalem?” We were so taken by the fact that he said that, and even though he had said it before, when we published it in the paper, it was even quoted in The New York Times. Then he added the Golan Heights to territories that should not be [given back], then he added Hebron, then he put more emphasis on the condition that the Arabs would make peace. 
But I also think that it’s no coincidence that he did not occupy the West Bank and Gaza and the Old City (of Jerusalem) in 1948. It’s not that we were too weak to do that. It was a very clear decision because these territories were full of Arab refugees. We just got rid of them, and we will occupy them again? It makes no sense. This was something that haunted him for many, many years because [prime minister Menachem] Begin kept saying, “You betrayed Jerusalem, you betrayed Jerusalem.”
Then in 1967, Jerusalem was taken by [prime minister Levi] Eshkol, which Ben-Gurion thought was really a historic injustice, that it was Eshkol who took Jerusalem and not him. He was very unhappy about the whole thing. During the Six Day War everybody more or less forgot about Ben-Gurion. He was alone at his house, Dayan sent him somebody from time to time to inform him, but he basically heard what happened on the radio. That’s the fate of the has-been.
He could have returned the territories in exchange for real peace, exchanging ambassadors – meaning an [Israeli] ambassador in Syria and an [Israeli] ambassador in Jordan. But I don’t know what he would have done about Jerusalem. He immediately made himself head of the Jerusalem lobby and attacked the government for not doing more for the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter [in the Old City]. Then he came out with this really weird statement that the walls of the Old City should be destroyed to show the unity of Jerusalem. He said it three times, and even put it in writing. Teddy Kollek [then-mayor of Jerusalem] told him to leave it alone.
What personality traits most impressed you?
He was crazy about books. He was crazy about details. When you look at his diary, there are pages and pages of statistics, like voting results in Rosh Ha’ayin. He was thinking and remembering while he was writing. His chief of staff, Yigal Yadin, once said he never saw Ben-Gurion’s eyes while they were talking to him because he was writing his diary in real time. If the chief-of-staff has a discussion with the prime minister, and he sees that the prime minister writes down every word, he will be careful with what he said. 
The main problem for the biographer is that Ben-Gurion had absolutely no sense of humor. On the other hand, he had journalistic talent. He could describe things that happened to him in a way that makes a story. In 1947, he went to London to discuss that possibility that the British mandate will go on for five or 10 years, which itself is interesting. February of that year was the coldest in London’s recorded history. He has a meeting with Oliver Stanley, who was the head of the Conservative party at the Dorchester Hotel. Ben-Gurion realizes that the Dorchester is not heated and Stanley is sitting in the lobby in his overcoat waiting for him. Stanley said, “Mr. Ben-Gurion, don’t take off your coat, they don’t heat the hotel.” Ben-Gurion says, “This is an empire in deep crisis if they don’t have money to heat the most luxurious hotel in Europe.”
How long did this book take you?
It took six years, which is longer than usual. I usually do a book in four or five years. This was the second biography I wrote. Before that, I wrote a biography of [Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal. I like the genre of the biography. When I finished that book, I thought “What’s my next project?” Someone said, “Why don’t you write about [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky?” I can’t write about Jabotinsky because I don’t speak Russian and I don’t understand poetry. Someone else said I should write about Begin. Sure, Begin is a great story, but I don’t have the papers.
Today, it’s getting more difficult with classified papers. They are supposed to declassify after 30 years. But today you go to the State Archive and let’s say you are looking for a footnote that was already published in the Minnesota University Press and you want to see the document. They say, “It’s not open anymore,” meaning they close things again. That is just one aspect of a weakening democracy. Democratic consciousness in Israel is becoming weaker, and freedom of information is becoming less self-evident than it used to be. The State Archive had a relatively liberal policy of opening state secrets – not liberal enough for my taste, but more liberal than many other countries. You can’t even see the file anymore. If you ask for a file, they will scan and send it to you. I need to see the paper, the backside of the paper, what it looks like, what’s the order of the pages, and that’s not available anymore. I also want to make sure they gave me everything. I think they fear for the image of Israel. So many things that they classify deal with the image of the country, not with security things.
What’s your favorite of your books?
One Palestine Complete about the British mandate. It was a very colorful period when people from all over the world came to this country and brought the urge, ability and talent to do things that no one had done before. One translated Alice in Wonderland to Hebrew, one opened the first hospital for children, some people gathered on a mountain and founded Hebrew University, while another group got together on a beach and founded Tel Aviv. It was a very exciting period just before the British came. In those days people wrote diaries so I found lots and lots of diaries and I could reconstruct life. It was also a time that Jews and Arabs lived together.
How do you feel about the current move to annex parts of the West Bank?
What’s happening now is part of a long, extensive historical process. I see no difference between the settlements in Shomron [the northern West Bank] and Deganya and Nahalal [two of the first communities in Israel.] This is a process that is still going on and has not fully succeeded, although Israel appears as one of the most dramatic success stories of the 20th century. It has not succeeded or failed yet.
Right now I feel very bad about the oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Netanyahu has so far avoided these dramatic decisions. He had 13 years to annex the West Bank and didn’t. He had 13 years to occupy Gaza, and he didn’t. It was the same reason that Ben-Gurion didn’t do it, because of what to do with all the Arabs.
It is different now because he is under heavy pressure to do this, and he feels more self-assured after 13 years in power. He is a success story. There’s no doubt about it. But I think that what has been going on is really terrible and I identify with people who ask themselves if Zionism is worth it. When I did the book about Ben-Gurion I felt very bad about how the expulsion of the Arabs is an integral part of what Zionism is all about. I hope I’m wrong in my pessimism. But one of the things Ben-Gurion said in 1919, over 100 years ago, is that there is no chance for an agreement between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
Do you have any children?
I have a son from Ethiopia and four beautiful grandchildren. I went to Ethiopia for a story and interviewed a lot of people. A few days later I was on one of the planes of Ethiopian immigrants coming to Israel and this tiny guy comes up to me and says, “We know each other. You came to our house.”
I decided that I will follow this guy’s life and how he becomes an Israeli. I took a picture of him on the plane, and I began to write about him and he became a hero of my column. Gradually we became close, and at the age of 14 or 15, he told me that he has a mother, an endless number of brothers and sisters but he doesn’t have a father. He said that he wanted to go and look for his father’s grave [in Ethiopia]. Hanoch Marmari [then editor of Haaretz] thought it would be a great story for Passover. It was a very adventurous and emotional trip for both of us. We had to walk for 18 hours until we found the grave, and when we came back, we just knew that we were father and son.